The Secret to Prayer

If there’s one thing I want to be known as, it’s a man of prayer.

For years, I tried to discipline myself to pray. Prayer cards, prayer apps, prayer journals; I’ve experimented with (and discarded) all these methods.

My difficulty in cultivating a life of prayer confounded me since I’m disciplined in many areas of my life. I run or walk at the same time each morning, I read the Scriptures and take notes in the margins daily, I work a full-time job alongside a part-time job and teaching a weekly class at my church. But for all my discipline, I could not cultivate a praying life.

I am pleased to say that is changing. I am not pleased to say why.

Why I Haven’t Been a Man Who Prays

In his book A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller writes,

You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? In three different prayers, the shepherd-boy turned king named David explains:

As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (Psalm 40:17)

But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay! (Psalm 70:5)

For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

After years of failing at prayer, I am realizing that my lack of prayer has nothing to do with my lack of discipline and has everything to do with my lack of neediness.

The truth is, I think I’m enough. I don’t think I need God to solve my problems. If I can’t figure out what to do with my life, I read some books. If I don’t know how to discipline my kids, I ask someone who seems to know how.

Where I turn when I’m in need reveals whom I truly believe in. Miller writes,

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.

He follows this statement by pointing out that if you live like time, money, and talent are all you need, “You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy.” And so I have been. For a long time. Like butter spread too thin, I have been covering just enough of my life to make it taste like I’m there.

Praying Because You Have to

But this is not how Jesus lived. If you look closely at Jesus’ life, you will find him on his knees in a desolate place before each major moment of his life, and as a matter of regular practice. Miller contrasts Jesus with the quietly self-confident person, saying,

But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.

You see, Jesus and David prayed for the same reason: they needed to. They had to.

I didn’t pray because I thought I could do life on my own. I didn’t pray because I didn’t need to.

But now I do.

I’m not sure what exactly opened my eyes to how needy I am, but it must have been some combination of having four small children ages six and under and feeling the appropriate smallness of the impact I can have on the world and people around me.

I can’t make my children obey me. I can’t guarantee their safety. I can’t plan the next ten years. I can’t truly know what someone is thinking or feeling. I can’t control much of anything. Not really.

Learning to be Desperate

But I had to learn that desperation, like all of us. We are all born knowing we’re dependent on someone else for everything, then at some point, we grow up and think we’re self-reliant and self-sufficient. But sooner or later, life catches up in the form of a diagnosis or unemployment or a wayward child, and we realize all over again how helpless we truly are.

This realization doesn’t necessarily drive us to see our neediness, however. It can, and often does, begin a low period where we seek to control our circumstances until we can climb out of the pit we’re in. Sometimes we find our way out, sometimes we don’t.

But we would be better off to stay in the pit a bit longer and learn how desperate we truly are for outside help. This is one reason why God allows us to enter into prolonged periods of stress, pain, or anxiety. Miller reminds us that

Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.

When we learn how desperate we are for God, we draw near to him. When we learn that we’re constantly desperate for God, we stay near to him. In the same book, Miller writes,

The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.

A few weeks ago, I came to Jesus weary, overwhelmed, wandering–messy.

And then I started to pray. “A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer,” says Miller. He’s right.

The secret to prayer is not discipline or scheduling or recording prayer requests. The secret to prayer is needing it.

Now I come to Jesus and pray like I need him, because of course, I do.

Prayer as Formation

A Christian who doesn’t pray isn’t really a Christian. A church that doesn’t pray isn’t really a church. To be a Christian is to be a pray-er.

Prayer has always been central to God’s people, especially in his church. Prayer was of the utmost importance in Jesus’ life. Time and again, he would disappear into the wilderness or some quiet space to be alone with his Father.

It was obvious to Jesus’ followers that his time in prayer fed his insatiable love for God and man, so much so that they finally broke down and begged, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). We, too, should beg Jesus to show us how to pray. That’s the aim of Gordon T. Smith’s small new book, Teach Us to Pray.

This book, like so many others on prayer, is built off of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4). But it differs in its treatment of the subject matter. Instead of working through that prayer line by line, Smith opts to examine three key features of Jesus’ prayer: thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Prayer as Formation

But before he begins that treatment, he points out that our lives usually inform our prayers. But, he asks, what if it was the other way around? What if instead of our life circumstances driving us to pray, we saw prayer as a way of participating in the kingdom of heaven and as a way of actually shaping the realities of our everyday lives? Smith says,

“Prayer has a formative impact on our lives—the manner or form of our prayers actually shapes the contours and character of our lives” (p. 9).

Smith is wisely pointing out that the form of our prayers ends up forming us. So when we pray, we should not pray as if God is passive and we are trying to get him to act, Smith says. Instead, we should approach prayer with the knowledge that God is always working, and through our prayers, we begin to see how and where he is at work in the world around us.

Since the form of prayer shapes us, he says, “We can even speak of a liturgy [of prayer], meaning that our prayers have a regular pattern to them so that over time our hearts and minds and lives are increasingly conformed to the very thing for which we are praying.” For thousands of years, God’s people have found it helpful to pray God’s words back to him, whether in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, Paul’s Ephesian prayer, and so on. These prayers are so beneficial for the individual and the church because they continually shape our hearts and minds to look more like God’s heart and mind.

Three Movements of Prayer

With that in mind, Smith explains that (based on Jesus’ example) there ought to be movements of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment in our prayers. We must start with thanksgiving because we will not receive more of we are ungrateful for. “We cannot pray ‘thy kingdom come’ if we are not grateful for how the kingdom has come and is coming” (p. 12). Thanksgiving is the Christian’s original response to the Redeemer’s work, and it should be our initial response to God in prayer.

The next movement is confession—the typical response for any who finds themselves in the presence of the King of Kings or in the midst of his kingdom. Smith calls confession, “the essential realignment of those who long to live under the reign of Christ” (p. 13). Confession and repentance (“an act of intentional alignment . . . with the coming of the reign of Christ”) are essential in developing “kingdom eyes”:

“We cannot pray ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ unless and until we see the ways our lives are not lived in consistency with the will of God” (p. 13).

Third, we practice discernment in our prayers, by which Smith means, “considering where and how God is calling us to speak and act as participants in the kingdom of God” (p. 13).

Three Movements, Three Temptations

At each movement, though, we are tempted away from praying. We’re tempted away from thanksgiving by focusing on what God is not doing rather than seeing what he is doing. I’m easily tempted to wish for moves of God I read about in other countries, churches, or states, so I was particularly busted by these words:

“Rather than looking to other societies where we are impressed that God is at work in seemingly miraculous ways and bemoaning that this is not happening in our situation, should we not see that perhaps in a secularized society God may be working in a far more subtle way?” (p.15).

When it comes to confession, we’re tempted away from praying by looking at “how others fall short, how others are not living up to the kingdom” (p. 15). If we think it’s always someone else who needs to change, we can be sure that we’re not confessing our own sin and repenting from that which is keeping us from living under Christ’s authority.

Once we’ve been thankful for the ways God is working around us and we’ve confessed and repented of our sin, we can now do  the work of discernment in our prayers—unless we give in to the dual temptations of thinking there’s nothing we can possibly do about the situation, or thinking we are the only ones who can do it all, and so we must. The first leads to cynicism, the second to burnout.

Worth Your Time and Money

From there, Smith dives deeper into each of the three movements—thanksgiving, confession, and discernment. Each chapter of my copy is filled with underlines and dog-eared pages. I love books this size (about 10,000 words) because each word counts and the author has usually boiled their thoughts down to the absolute essentials.

Teach Us to Pray is absolutely worth reading. Smith is a Canadian, so his phrasing, examples, and lexicon are refreshing for American readers. He often writes with beautiful simplicity and clarity—both of which the church can never have enough of.

My Favorite Quotes

  • “We are invited not only to pray the prayer but also, in praying, to enter into the kingom—to seek it and to live in this new dimension of reality.” (p. 5)
  • “In our praying not only are we asking God to change things, but we are being changed.” (p. 7)
  • “Yes, we do need to be agents of positive change, but could it be that we can only discern God’s particular call on us now if we’re able to see how God is already at work?” (p. 15)
  • “Praying in the Spirit means that in our prayers we listen twice as much as we speak.” (p. 25)
  • “If we think God is good to others and not to us, we do not really believe that God is truly good.” (p. 39)
  • “Confession is not a matter of getting God to love us. Indeed, we make confession precisely because we know we are loved.” (p. 58)
  • “And this requires persistent prayers—ideally daily—for the very simple reason that the impact of our prayers is their cumulative effect.” (p. 93)